Friday, 11 October 2013

The Curious Tale of The Three Hangmen

Stripping Close on the 1765 map of Edinburgh
Being asked to contribute regular articles about the city I love most allows me to share a little about the lesser known aspects of Edinburgh’s history with a wider audience so I hope you will find these sketches on the Old Town to be of interest.
The problem however is where to start? With a history dating back thousands of years since people first settled on the high crag of volcanic rock where the great Castle sits today there are countless centuries to chose from. However as a writer of mystery tales set in the 18th Century I think I should start in a period I know best.
When I first set out to write a novel set in Edinburgh I realised the first thing to do was find a good map of the city as it was then. There is little point in having your hero dashing along the Georgian streets of the New Town in 1745 only to discover that the very idea of creating these streets was twenty years in the future!
Happily I was able to secure an excellent street plan from that time which listed not only the main streets but more importantly it also gave name to the myriad narrow closes (alleys) which ran off from the Royal Mile so well known to tourists and locals alike. Even a cursory glance at these closes shows that many are named for obvious reasons such as Fishmarket Close, Fleshmarket Close, Writers Court, Lady Stair's Close etc but one named jumped out and begged for explanation: Stripping Close!
A little research and a hour or two in the company of an old book began to shed light on the meaning of the name and in turn led to the inspiration for this article...

The Curious Tale of The Three Hangmen

Women Brawl in the street
1700, the 20th of June and the people of Edinburgh are in the mood for a celebration. Good news has just reached the city from the Scottish colony of Darien in present day Panama where the settlers have secured some notable success over the Spanish. However the magistrates and Town Council have no money to spend on such frivolities and refuse the crowd's appeal. Also they know from bitter experience that any street parties in Edinburgh usually leads to public drunkenness, indecency and shameful spectacles on every street corner. 
Now in many places this would have been the end of the matter but not in Edinburgh. The party happy crowd quickly becomes an angry mob and sets out to create its own brand of fun.
By the following morning almost every magistrate and town councillor has been visited by the mob and had his windows smashed while the old Tolbooth has been broken into and all its prisoners released.
The Town Council, feeling the bite in their pocket, decide that something must be done and that an example must be made of the ringleaders of the riotous assembly. As no effort had been made to disguise their identity these men were soon apprehended and they were locked into a freshly secured Tolbooth awaiting trial. Despite the evidence of their undoubted guilt the Lord Advocate, the senior legal figure, refused to bring Capital charges against them which carried the death sentence if convicted. He could sense the mood on the streets even if the magistrates and councillors could not. The Lord Advocate convicted them of lesser charges and sentenced them to be publicly flogged and pilloried but when they were taken from their cells by the town hangman and escorted to the Castle Hill area the crowd had gathered once again.
The hangman with a strong sense of self preservation thought it wiser to spare the whip and laid not a single stripe upon their bare backs as they were led down the street tied to the tail of cart. When they reached the stocks by the Tron Kirk and were secured within them they were pelted with no more than flowers and supplied with a steady supply of wine and ale. Once their sentence was complete they were released and helped  to find their unsteady way home.
The Magistrates and councillors were furious at being mocked so openly and now turned their ire on the unfortunate hangman and demanded that he face the punishment he had so miserably failed to deliver. The hangman from the nearby town of Haddington was hired and brought in to deliver the whipping but the crowd had taken their own hangman to their hearts and the poor man from Haddington found it sensible to be as sparing in the scourging as his victim had been. 
That evening two hangmen spent the night in the cells of the Tolbooth and requests were sent to bring in a third hangman to punish the first two. However word had spread quickly and as one town after another refused to share their executioner the Magistrates and Councillors were fast becoming a laughing stock. Finally it was decided that the best thing to do was quietly release both hangmen and pretend that none of it had ever happened. The broken windows were repaired even if the wounded pride of the nobles wasn't.
The Hub
Now what does all this have to do with Stripping Close?
The close, sadly long gone now, stood on Castle Hill roughly where the Hub
now dominates the upper reaches of the Royal Mile, and earned its name from its role in the flogging of the guilty. The prisoner once marched over the cobbles from the Tolbooth were taken into Stripping Close where their upper garments were removed before they were taken back out into the street to be tied to the back of a cart in order to be whipped down the street to the Netherbow Port at World's End Close and the stocks.
The Netherbow Port was demolished in the 19th Century but World's End Close remains which marks it location as does the Tron Kirk which is now used for public entertainment during the internationally famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe, much as the stocks and its unfortunate prisoners were in their day.
The Netherbow Port

Stuart Laing is the author of The Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries the #1 bestselling series in the Kindle Edinburgh Historical Fiction chart
His blog can be followed at


  1. A really fascinating blog Stuart. I look forward to seeing these places for myself when I visit Edinburgh next year.

  2. Love and know all these places.....fabulous tale....cheers Stuart

  3. That's an amazing story! I'm quite surprised there hasn't been a children's song written about it! It's just the kind of subject they usually stem from. I love the idea that one thing led to another led to another until the situation was so ridiculous that they just drew a line under it. If only we could treat the current financial meltdown in the same way...!

  4. I must visit Edinburgh and have a proper nose around soon! Nice to hear of people power bearing fruit; never get between a Scotsman and a good party! :) Very interesting article Stuart. How long did the punishment of flogging continue in Edinburgh?

    1. Hi Rob,
      Public flogging continued at the cart's tail until the 1830's throughout Scotland. After that time the punishment were delivered behind closed doors. Flogging was removed as a punishment in Scotland in 1862 but continued in England and Wales until 1948.

  5. Fascinating have'nt heard this story and My home town is Edinburgh, althought not lived there since 1975! but visit twice a year!

  6. Rob, Edinburgh is amazing! I love it!

  7. I absolutely love this post. And I enjoyed seeing Edinburgh some years ago. We did a tour of the old streets below the city centre. It was fascinating. I also love the writing of Sir Walter Scott and he was central to my thesis on romance and realism in historical fiction. This has made me want to read him again.

  8. I hope there's plenty more where this came from - local history really comes alive when it's treated like this! Great post, Stuart

  9. Fascinating post, Stuart! That's a tale about Aule Reekie I hadn't heard. Illustrates - dare I say - the Scots' innate sense of justice & democracy. lang may yer lum reek